Saturday, November 21, 2009

Practicing Law

Each lawyer has a different set of dreams and goals. Mine include wanting to help the little guy, take on some cases which other lawyers may fear as too hard or impossible, solve some tricky legal questions in a novel way, and then be recognized for a tough job well done. So, I guess, I wanted to be a hero (hopefully) and help “make some new law” by having a case reported in the law books as a “case of first impression.”

The promise of fees has never been the determining factor. Fitting cases usually involved modest or no fees at all. I recall a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln—“do a good job practicing law and the fees will take care of themselves” or something like that. It’s true.

The “hero” thing probably came from watching black-and-white television shows growing up-- guys like Hop-a-Long Cassidy, Cisco Kid, and The Lone Ranger.

That, and perhaps also learning from some of the “classic” heroes-- like Don Quixote, Attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood in "Dirty Harry" ), and Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper in "High Noon"). Myths. The only real male hero in my life who was not a myth was my Dad.

The Ronda Reynolds case (posted earlier) got me to thinking about the civil cases I’ve handled that sort of fall into the category. Weird, but they all seem to involve death in some way—

1988-- Burkhart v. Harrod, 110 Wn.2d 381 (1988) involved a young man who had been killed when his motorcycle wrapped around a telephone pole after a wedding rehearsal dinner party. His blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit. He left a wife and small family. It seemed that somebody at the party could have taken his keys away or given him a ride. The cases in the State of Washington hold that surviving family members may sue a tavern owner, parents may sue those who provide booze to minors, and relatives of employees who were over-served at a company party could sue the employer. But no liability had yet been imposed upon a “social host” who over-served an obviously intoxicated guest. There is still no liability against social hosts, as we lost the appeal.

1989-- Halquist v. Department of Corrections, 113 Wn.2d 818 (1989) was sort of a ghoulish First Amendment type of case. I represented a journalist who wanted to video tape record the scheduled hanging of Charles Campbell, who had slit the throats of three women while he was in work release. The case was dismissed on grounds that there was no right to access the visual images of the hanging under the state constitution. The public would have to consider the death penalty in other ways.

1991-- Rabb v. McDermott, 60 Wn.App. 334 (1991) involved a guy named McDermott who died in a car wreck, leaving two twin boys known to be his. I represented a woman who stepped forward and claimed that her young boy was also a son, although McDermott was not named on the birth certificate and paternity had never been established. We filed a claim against the estate and sought to prove paternity against the deceased. Going without blood tests and in face of the “dead man statute” (which means you can’t use what the deceased said when alive if you might benefit in someway from those words). We prevailed, and a trust fund was set up for the third son.

2000-- Nelson v. Schubert, 98 Wn.App. 754 (2000) involved extreme domestic violence. Schubert was an insurance agent and reserve police officer who once said “Only stupid people get caught for murder.” He married younger Juliana Schubert and fathered two sons. The marriage was falling apart and Juliana was leaving him. She then disappeared without a trace, not taking her purse, car keys or other belongings. Police suspected him and even arrested him, but the lead detective died from leukemia. Schubert was released and never charged. Juliana’s mother asked me to file a wrongful death claim against the husband after the seven-year presumption of death kicked in. Based primarily upon his inconsistent statements, a jury found that he was the “slayer” and awarded the sons about $1,800,000 (although the sons fought us, too). Based upon his civil trial testimony (he should have remained silent, but just couldn't resist showing how smart he was), he was later charged and convicted of murder. (One of his sons committed suicide shortly after that).

2008-- Thompson v. Wilson, 142 Wn.App. 803 (2008) was where a husband, whose wife was leaving him the next morning, called 911 and reported that “my wife just committed suicide” by shooting herself in the back of her head. The sheriff declared the death a suicide and the husband was never prosecuted. I represented the mother of the wife, left to sue the coroner to change her daughter’s death certificate from “suicide.” That case is still in the works. So far, so good. The jury has said the death was not a suicide and that the coroner acted arbitrarily and capriciously. The coroner has refused to change the death certificate.

There is something big and serious about cases involving death—perhaps because they deal with the end of life. Maybe such cases give us an opportunity to respect and honor life, examine how death may come and what it leaves, or… maybe with death in the background we get a chance to see how we act before it.


  1. I hope you'll continue to share your stories.

  2. Royce, you continue to be an inspiration. Great stuff throughout this blog. BTW, as you write about heros above, know that one of my heros taught me how to be a trial lawyer. Thanks. Guss Markwell, St. Louis MO